Allow me to state, up front, that I cannot understand, as a middle-aged white man, the frustrations and fears which are associated with being a person of color in America. I cannot honestly declare that I know what it feels like to be stopped by the police based primarily, if not solely, upon the color of my skin. I have no frame of reference where I am able to equate walking in my community with the possibility of being attacked. While I cannot express empathy (where we would share in a mutual emotion) with those mourning and protesting across the country, I can and do express sympathy (where we come alongside one another as we share our unique experiences).
What I can do, as a minister of the gospel and pastor of a city-cited church, is listen to the voices of the oppressed and marginalized. I can also share relevant and revelatory biblical truth. To do that, I would like to share something that someone smarter than me has said:
The Scripture is what tells us that the idolization of the flesh is sin (Gal. 5:16-24), that hatred of those made in the image of God is sin (1 Jn. 3:11-15), that mistreating people with the justice system is sin (Prov. 17:15; 23:10), that ignoring the cries of those being mistreated is sin (Deut. 23:14-15; Jas. 5:4). And the Scripture tells us that that sin, without repentance, brings the judgment of God (Rom. 6:23). That is true not only for those who personally rebel against God’s holiness and justice but also those who “give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32). That is a dreadful reality, to which those of us in Christ are called to serve as ambassadors pleading, as though Christ were pleading through us, “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). – Russell Moore
Each and every human being is made in the image of God. Each and every human being is fearfully and wonderfully made by the Almighty. Each and every human being is God’s handiwork and created in Christ Jesus to do good work. While holding tight to these truths, we also hold onto the biblical mandate to care for and champion the cause of those whose voices have been silenced: in the time of Christ and the apostles, the voiceless were the widows and orphans, the sick and unclean, the Samaritans and the Gentiles; in our day, they are people of color, as well as the homeless, the hungry and the trafficked.
To follow Christ means to follow Christ. Jesus was a member of the favored demographic, albeit from a back-water region of the nation, who confronted injustice and spoke for the down-trodden. He had his own challenges (he had no place to lay his head and was harassed by the authorities) but remained diligent in making sure that the issues and concerns of the dismissed were addressed. We are to follow Him along that same path. We must stand in opposition to injustice, hear the cries of those who have been silenced and labor to ensure that the dividing wall of hostility, which Christ destroyed, remains dismantled.
May the needed changes come through the people of God.
It began, for me, on a Sunday afternoon a number of weeks ago as we were dropping something off at the home of a church member – we saw a small painted rock, a bit of cheer during this challenging time, on the curbstone in front of their house. Since that time, I have been seeing painted rocks, many with inspirational slogans, all over the neighborhood as we walk. They have been placed on stoops and in side yards, gathered around trees and set upon fenceposts. I have no idea who put them there or when, but I do appreciate the lift they give my soul as I encounter them.
These are not the only rocks I walk by, mind you. My ambling has enabled me to observe cornerstones, surveyor’s marks, painted sea walls, an old milestone, gravestones and etched building facades, all sharing a story, a memory and a history. These stones, painted or chiseled, are permanent reminders of fleeting realities. They are prompts to remember our collective past. They represent to all those who travel by them that that building was once the Massachusetts Fields School or that this particular street was once the main route to Boston. They mark lives and industries, they represent hope and heartache, they tell stories.
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12
As I see all these stones around me, I have been reminded of Samuel and his ‘Ebenezer’ (a Hebrew compound word which means, literally, ‘stone of remembrance’). Samuel did not want to forget God’s faithfulness, so he erected a rock in the middle of a clearing to remember the event. We could benefit from the same practice: we could experience so much joy if, as we moved about the trails of our lives we were given permanent prompts to remind us of God’s faithfulness throughout the trials of our lives.
I have been thinking about those stones as we navigate the current crisis. I have been thinking about the ‘things’ that have suddenly found their way onto all of our counters and tabletops and have taken up residence in all of our cars. I have begun to see the disposable face masks, the bottles of hand sanitizer and the drums of disinfecting wipes as ‘Ebenezers’ – no longer do they serve as a reminder of a deadly virus but also as a reminder of the Lord who has helped us thus far, of the God who is delivering us through these tough times.
Ebenezers are all around us, if we are careful enough to notice them. They are the permanent and unchanging objects, infused with meaningful memories, that surround us. They are painted rocks and markings on a door frame. They are hospital bracelets and broken wristwatches. They are considered junk by everyone but us; to us, they are the epitome of joy. They are the containers that hold the memories of God’s faithfulness and the tangible touchpoints reminding us that thus far the Lord has helped us. They are precious indeed.
Let me start off by saying that I hate to wait. I know that waiting – for the train or for the kids or for doctor – is a part of life, but that does not mean I have to like it. Despite my personal preference, I am required, as are we all, to patiently endure a prolonged season of waiting for ‘life-as-normal’ to resume; eventually academia, commerce, recreation and church will return. Until then, we wait. As I write this post, it is Wednesday, May 6th, and it has been fifty days since the governor of Massachusetts implemented the ‘stay-at-home’ advisory, although it seems to me much longer.
God created a world with waiting woven into its fabric. God, it seems, designed us to wait. Creation includes the sabbath, a day set apart every week to refrain from our work. God led His people through the wilderness but delayed their entrance into the promised land for 40 years. God structured the agricultural schedule of the early Israelites with a 50-day waiting period between the gathering of the first fruits and the reaping of the harvest. God had Jesus and His earthly parents wait in Egypt for three years before the family could safely return to their hometown. God develops His gift of patience in us when we wait by Jesus’ tomb at Easter, when we wait in the upper room at Pentecost, and when we wait for His promised return on that great and glorious day.
“From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD.” Leviticus 23:15-16 (NIV)
As I think about what I know about myself and my disdain for patiently abiding, as well as the celebration of Mother’s Day this weekend, I realize how good and godly the moms in our lives must be. I deeply appreciate the contributions of the moms in my life. Honestly, I couldn’t do it. From the first moments of our existence, the waiting began: the two hundred and eighty days of our gestation, the hours waiting at the OB/GYN office, staying up in anticipation of the late night feedings, watching for the firsts (first smiles, first words, first steps). As our children grow, the waiting doesn’t abate, as moms of adults remain vigilant as they await word of their children’s arrival at home or their departure from vacation.
I am so grateful for the women who have waited for me and have made my seasons of waiting a bit more bearable. I appreciate that I am still able to see and speak with my mom and my mother-in-law, even though it must be through cell phones this year, and I pray for God’s hand of comfort for those who no longer have this ability. I pray also for all the mothers I know, especially the new moms and those with children still at home – those providing guidance, recreation, education, nutrition, lasting good memories and stability in this time of such uncertainty. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you.
And as we wait for that time of blessed reunion, either in this realm or the next, I hope we can take some time this weekend to thank God for our moms.
As I sit at my dining room table (a.k.a. my ‘home office workspace’), I ask the same question I have asked in one form or another for the previous 45 days: when do things go back to normal? More to the point, as a pastor of a small church I have a more specific query: when can we go back to church? At first blush it is a simple question: when will the stay-at-home advisory be lifted and on which Sunday will we be able resume meeting at our selected house of worship? As I contemplate this conundrum, my thoughts race to all the precautions and safeguards that would need to be considered and implemented for a resumption of corporate ministry.
As my mind performs what can only be described as mental gymnastics, twisting and bending various bits of information and analysis into a cogent plan, I find myself distracted by a song, first recorded in 1991 by AVB, that keeps repeating in my head. Its chorus reminds me: “You can’t go to church as some people say – the common terminology we use every day. You can go to a building, that is something you can do, but you can’t go to church ‘cause the church is you.” Perhaps I have been asking myself the wrong question. Perhaps a better inquiry is this: ‘How can I be the church today?’
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. Colossians 1:18 (NIV)
The church is not the building, nor is it the activities that take place in the building. The church is much more than an hour-long celebration of Christ centered around some songs and scripture. The church is the body of Christ – a metaphor describing the people who have been brought together by God’s grace to glorify Him (in word and deed) and have been scattered throughout every segment of society to declare His praises (again, in word and deed). If you know Jesus as Lord and Savior, that is who you are.
So, in this season of scattering, we need to be the church. We need to declare His praises with our conversations, within our household walls (delighting in and doting on our loved ones) and beyond our habitations (uplifting our local ‘heroes’ and offering hope to the discouraged). We need to demonstrate our trust in His promises (sacrificing our self-interest and securing the needs of those without essential resources). Until the doors to public spaces are opened, we can enter into private spaces through telephone calls and hand-written letters. We can engage one another through video chats and ‘yelling-from-across-the-street’ interactions. In these days of discouraging news and depressing distancing, we need the church to be the church, full of all her light and joy. We need you to be you.
I assure you, some weekend soon we will be able to go to church. Until then, we can do church; we can be church.
It is incredible what can change in a week. Grade schools were still in session, restaurants were open and traffic into the city was bogged down with its usual congestion. The developments and press conferences that we’ve watched daily have given new meaning to “cancel culture”. We are now required to understand new terms like social distancing, COVID-19 and pandemic. As we, together as a global community, deal with the ramifications of all these changes, join with me in praying for those most deeply impacted: those with fragile health, that the precautions we all take will protect those most in danger; those who own, manage and/or are employed by small businesses that cannot operate ‘from home’, that the economic realities of this crisis will not lead to financial ruin; students, school staffs, educators and administrators, that the ramifications of time away will be mitigated by online community and instruction.
I am aware that some are afraid – fearful of infection, fearful of loss, fearful in uncertainty. I share your fears. I am concerned that someone in my family will get sick. I am anxious for the church and her continuing ministry should we be unable to meet for a month or more. For me, this week has been like an unending snowstorm. When it snows in greater Boston during the weekend, my anxiety level increases as I contemplate cancellations and the results of not gathering. I somehow think that the faith of God in the congregation depends upon 70 minutes of impactful worship and if we cannot get together, all hell will break loose (literally and figuratively).
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18 (ESV)
The snow will stop falling. The pandemic will end. The world will go back to normal. God will still reign.
So, I am choosing to count the blessings. Blessing 1: political divisions have given way to community interest; instead of dividing over red and blue policies, we are uniting in our shared concern for one another. Blessing 2: optional fellowship has given way to intentional connecting; instead of engaging with others on our terms, I am seeing more interactions motivated by love. Blessing 3: a new appreciation for our schools and day-care providers; the creativity of emergency on-line learning, the providing of lunches and instruction and the healthy interactions of adults with our children are amazing. Blessing 4: the advancements in technology; with live-streaming, video conferencing, on-line giving, telecommuting, e-commerce and news apps, most can stay connected even when we practice social distancing. Blessing 5: free time with family for reading, recreation and rest.
As we continue to weather this storm, I encourage you to come up with your own list of unforeseen blessings this crisis has given you. I also encourage you to be a blessing to those around you – bring toilet paper to an elderly neighbor, order take-out to support a struggling establishment or call an old friend.
God will prevail.
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After watching the local news recently, I have come to the conclusion that most of us are obsessed with safety. We are willing to do whatever is required to be safe from illness, as is evident by the shortages of bottled water and hand sanitizer at our nation’s ‘big box’ retailers to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We are willing to invest significant resources to be safe from crime, installing video doorbells and high-tech security systems to prevent break-ins. Our hearts break due to our insecurities arising from natural disasters, expecting that sirens and first responders ought to keep us from the harm of tornados or wildfire. We expect that we, and those we love, ought to be safe from the dangers of life.
Despite all our sacrifices at the altar of safety, we remain at risk. Emergency rooms across the country will still be filled today with those who suffered injury. Prisons throughout the world will be filled today with people unjustly convicted to serious crimes. Homeless shelters and food banks in urban areas will be filled by individuals and families who have been ravaged by systemic poverty. We will continue to face illness and injustice. We will be overshadowed by disaster and need. We will be plagued with injury and crime. No matter what we give – offering our power, our possessions and our priorities – safety is persistently fickle.
It is for many a troubling reality that God does not promise safety for those who follow Him. However, we can be comforted by the reality that He does promise us Himself.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. Isaiah 43:2 (NIV)
“I will be with you” – through the waters and through the flames. In the Bible, references to water typically represent chaos (e.g. the creation narrative) and references to fire typically represent judgement (e.g. the book of Revelation). We all know that life can be chaotic, messy and disruptive. When it is, and we feel unsafe, we can take comfort in the truth that God is with us. We also know that life is filled with the consequences of bad acts, committed by our own hands or by the hands of others. When it is, and we feel like the world is conspiring against us for our ruin, we can have peace in the truth that God is with us through it all.
We can choose to put our faith and trust in the thoughts and plans birthed by human ingenuity or put our faith and trust in the one who designed and created every human mind. We are wise when we take precautions, refusing to be consumed by the fears that come with uncertainty and insecurity. Whatever you face this week, you should know that God goes with you. This world is a scary place, but thankfully we are never alone.
When we were vacationing last week, we spent a few hours with our nephew and his family. As we were walking through their backyard, our niece-in-law was showing us her extensive garden. She showed us the lettuce and carrots, some of which had been eaten by rascally rabbits. Then, pointing to some large leaves (which we speculated might have been collard greens or kale), she said, “Those were supposed to be beets, but I think the seeds were mislabeled.” I admit that I do not have a green thumb, but I have grown a few vegetables over the years; what I know about seeds is simple – that many of them look similar and it is not until you see their growth that you know for sure what they will produce.
This reality has reminded me of two biblical truths, one positive and one negative. First, the ‘bad news’: Jesus taught his disciples that you don’t pick figs from thornbushes. Next, the ‘good news’: God’s good creation is designed in such a way that every plant produces fruit according to its kind.
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Matthew 7:16-18 (NIV)
You don’t pick grapes from thornbushes. You don’t pick figs from thistles. You don’t plant carrots and get apples. Cucumber seeds produce cucumbers, even when they are labeled as tomato seeds. The biblical truth (and agricultural truth) is that you get what you planted, not what you thought you planted. This is, however, not all bad news. Some of us, those who were labeled as “stupid” or “damaged” or “worthless”, need to be reminded that our envelope doesn’t determine our end. We are what we are, not what others say we are.
Every plant produces fruit according to its kind. The rosebush produces roses. The pea plant produces peas. The grapevine produces grapes. You understand my point. Even though we might be mislabeled or missorted, we all are capable of producing, and only producing, fruit in accordance with our nature. When we are properly fed, watered and pruned, we are all beneficial. This is, unequivocally, good news: God has made you, just as you are, so that you will produce your own particular kind of fruit. You can do no other task.
Susan’s garden, and the scriptural musings that those plants by the back fence have piqued, have left me with a question: what were you born to do? Whatever the answer, regardless of the ways you’ve been labeled, cultivate your core and bear fruit accordingly. Allow yourself to be fed by God over time and develop deep roots. Creatively pursue the passions of your heart, knowing that the fruit of an apple tree, for example, could be a cider, a sauce or a pie. The world needs what only you can offer.
By the time you read this, I will be finishing up my vacation (presumably in our nation’s capital). We will have seen the National Museum of African American History and Culture and The Bible Museum, as well as family in the Baltimore and DC area. I am, however, presuming all this; I am writing this post on Friday, February 14th, and we are not leaving until tomorrow. I have no idea whether or not all the things that I am saying we will have done will be what we have done. All I have done is make plans.
I am not saying that making plans is nothing. As the adage goes, “failing to plan is simply planning to fail.” Some plans have been made – I had a few people at church fill in for me on Sunday morning, we lined up beds to sleep in during our time away, and we made sure the car had an oil change. As I write these things, though, I have no idea if anything we are planning took place as planned. To be honest, my thoughts often betray me when on vacation: what if the hotel lost our reservation, what if the flight is cancelled, what if there is no one to pick us up at the train station. Plans are something, but they are not everything.
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13–16 (NIV)
We ought to say, “If the Lord wills….” It is clear that James is not forbidding us from making plans (otherwise he would be sinning through his teachings in other parts of his letter). He is warning us not to assume a position as the center of the universe, expecting our plans to be immutable and undeniable. We need to leave room for the possibility that God might have something else in mind. We must not be so rigid in our expectations of our infallible scheduling that we miss the movement of grace. Our plans, while impactful to us, are, in the course of history, but a movement of the morning fog.
So, we have plans. Maybe when this is appears on the digital landscape, all of what we planned will have come to fruition; but I doubt it. Most of us will never do all that we imagine we will do. Most of us, when we trust God with the directions end up doing more than we ever imagined. When I return tomorrow, ask me about it. Hopefully, I will be able to share some blessing I had never planned to enjoy…but did!
Like an estimated 102 million other people, I watched the Super Bowl a few week ago. It was a great end to the NFL season. However, what will remain with me for much longer than the play on the field was a particularly moving commercial that ran relatively early in the broadcast. Paid for by New York Life, it began by stating that the ancient Greeks had four words for love. According to the advertisement:
- “Philia is affection that grows from friendship”;
- “Storgé – the kind [of love] you have for a grandparent or a brother”;
- “Eros – the uncontrollable urge to say ‘I love you’”; and
- “Agapé, the most admirable – love as an action; it takes courage, sacrifice, and strength.”
Maybe it was the mention of ancient Greek, a language with which I wrestle for comprehension every week. Maybe it was the powerful visuals of the varied aspects of love. Whatever the reason, I was captivated by the commercial and its message: that love takes action.
Fast-forward twelve days to today, Valentine’s Day, the (inter)national holiday celebrating love. I wonder, in light of this commercial, which love we are celebrating as we exchange cards? Are we appreciating the love of our friends, or our family, or our ‘significant other’, or those who sacrifice to provide all that we require? It is likely that today will be, to some degree, a recognition of the first three loves, but especially focused on our romantic loves. Restaurants will be patronized, florists will be utilized and confectioners will be supported.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
At the same time, there will be many celebrating Valentine’s Day in other ways and in other places. They will visit the nursing home and spoon-feed their mom supper. They will drop by a cemetery and pull the weeds around their husband’s marker. They will assist their daughter into a transport van and accompany her to physical therapy. They will sit in the hospital with their 8-year old son as he undergoes treatment for leukemia. These are the ones who will be demonstrating agapé love today, and tomorrow, not because it is Valentine’s Day, but because that is what ‘love as an action’ looks like.
I hope that everyone who is reading this has a Valentine, someone who will say to you today (with accoutrements or not), “I love you”. I hope you will enjoy a Whitman Sampler or a Reese’s heart, a nice candle-lit prix-fixe dinner, or a bouquet of lilies. I pray even more that everyone who is reading this today has someone who has shown them agapé – that sacrificial, surrendering, willful emptying of themselves for the sake of another. I am blessed to know that kind of love. I pray you are as well.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day (or in Greek, ευτυχισμένη ημέρα του Αγίου Βαλεντίνου)!
One of the joys that comes from the challenge my wife and I have given ourselves in seeing all the Best Picture nominations each year is answering the question, when someone asks, “What would you recommend?” That question invariably leads to a conversation where I am free to express my values, preferences and worldview. This year, for a number of different reasons, I would recommend any of them: some films marvelously expressed the importance of family, others wonderfully demonstrated the indomitable human spirit, and still others powerfully depicted the troubling consequences of marginalizing the outcast. If you would like a more in-depth conversation, get in touch with me and we can talk.
Making recommendations can be tricky. The points and plot-twists that I appreciate are just that, what I appreciate. Every film I watch is filtered through my own eyes, which have witnessed particular life experiences that are exclusive to myself, and you will not see things in the same exact way. There might have been aspects of the story that found deep resonance in your heart that went by unaffected to mine. When we add into the mix the complex variables of theatrical genres, directorial choices and subject matter, discussing what another person should consume can be difficult. Recommendations are, by nature, suggestive and thus require consideration of the audience.
Around this time of year, I become a ‘movie evangelist’: someone who shares the good news of cinematic perfection and encourages others to experience the joys I have come to know. I do not take this task lightly. I consider my audience (their temperaments and tastes) and convey a recommendation. Want to see a great family movie? “Little Women”; a cinematic masterpiece? “1917”; an unexpected delight? “Jo Jo Rabbit”; a cautionary tale? “The Irishman” or “Marriage Story”.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. Luke 24:27 (NIV)
Most of us could talk about our favorite movie for hours. I have been praying that we would be as conversational about the Gospel as we have been about cinema. I long for those around me to have the same fervor to tell others what they have been reading in the Bible and share with them how it reflects the good and bad aspects of our society. I desire a church community that sees the benefit in conversing with others about the riches that could be taken away from the truths expressed in God’s word. I wonder what would happen if we talked about Jesus the way we talk about movies or (if you are not a cinephile, i.e. a movie lover) the way we talk about sports or fashion or books.
What part of the Bible would you recommend I ‘see’ and why?
For the record, I would be happy to see “1917”, “Ford v. Ferrari”, “Jo Jo Rabbit” or “Little Women” win the Oscar on Sunday night and, for posterity, I predict “1917” will take home the statuette.